By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
CARTHAGE, Mo. —
No one has claimed the photo of a child napping on a couch. Or of a bridesmaid helping a bride prepare for a wedding. Or the picture of a family in front of a fireplace.
The photos chronicle life’s milestones. These particular photos, though, are without owners.
For now, they’re housed at First Baptist Church in Carthage, where they’ve been cleaned, sorted, labeled and protected since having been lost in the 2011 tornado that hit Joplin and Duquesne. Twenty months later, 22,000 such photos remain.
“It’s really slowed to just a trickle,” said Donna Turner, a church member who for more than a year has coordinated claim days encouraging those affected by the tornado to look through albums or at an online archive.
Within a few months of the tornado, volunteers with the Lost Photos of Joplin Project established a headquarters upstairs at the church. They processed about 35,000 photos found in the tornado’s aftermath — not from just the disaster zone that stretched for miles but from across Southwest Missouri.
For a while they celebrated successes, like returning a batch of 500 at a time to one family, or several packets of photos to another. Twice-monthly claim days held at the Joplin Public Library, Northpark Mall and the church had good turnouts.
Then it slowed.
Turner’s goal at Christmas was to have returned 15,000. She missed it by 1,518.
“Nine people showed up at our last claim day, and we gave back just two photos,” she said. “This week, I sent out 11 photos to people who had identified them online, but the week before that, hardly anything.”
Saturday, only one couple turned out, and took with them just one photo.
Turner anticipates receiving still more photos this week — a delivery to be made by First Baptist Church of Carterville, where members collected photos but didn’t know what to do with them.
Occasionally, individuals browsing through photos online recognize a face and identify a photo as belonging to a friend, family member or acquaintance. The photos are pulled and tucked into manila envelopes with contact information. About 75 of them waited in a plastic tub Saturday for pickup, but no one came.
Volunteers spend hours a day working on the computer or poring over some 30 three-ring binders with copies of the photos, trying to match one set of faces to another.
Upstairs, dozens of boxes are stacked along a wall, awaiting their next home if the photos aren’t identified or claimed. On Oct. 22, they will go to the Joplin Museum Complex for storage.
Among them are a mustached man in camouflage proudly showing off a wild turkey he harvested. And a woman in glasses and checkered pants showing off a goat. A photo of hot rods and a photo of a field of RVs. A photo of three smiling young men dressed in soldiers’ uniforms in the 1940s, and a photo of a young girl in a Mount Vernon basketball uniform in midjump during a pre-game warm-up.
There’s a photo of a Joplin Family YMCA Cardinals youth baseball team, and a photo at Mo-Kan Dragway of a young woman in a dragster marked “Terry Robinson.”
Volunteer Mary McWilliams, who didn’t have much to do at Saturday’s claim day, offered her theory for the lack of interest.
“Some people at the Northpark Mall claim day said they weren’t ready to look yet,” she said. “I guess unless you’ve been through it, you don’t really know.”
Photos and a master list of names taken from the backs of photos can be found at www.joplinrescuedphotos.org or on Facebook at Lost Photos of Joplin. Those seeking photos also may call 417-358-8161.